As much global attention has been focused this month on Israel and Hamas, the violence may have caused Gaza's once-thriving Christian population to further dwindle as thousands of Christians in the region have fled poor economic conditions and discrimination over the last 15 years.
Many don’t know that Gaza has its own Christian community, and the history of the presence of Christians in the Gaza Strip goes back to the beginnings of the Roman state's persecution of followers of the new religion. It was one of the areas Romans visited before the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity and the adoption of the Roman Empire’s official religion at the beginning of the fourth century A.D.
Despite this authentic historical presence of Christians in this region, their numbers have gradually decreased, especially since 2006, after internal and external circumstances colluded. Since the takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Christians and others have been subject to restrictions of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement. Today, estimates suggest that only about 1,000 Christians remain in the Gaza Strip.
Christians in the Gaza Strip today are divided into three sections. There are Christians from the original inhabitants of Gaza, who have inhabited it since ancient times, and others immigrated to it after Israel declared its independence in 1948. And the third group were those who were abroad and came in 1994 with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and are still there today.
Khalil Hassan, 25 years old, is a Christian who has lived in the Gaza Strip since his birth. But he left the area four years ago, accompanied by his family. He went to the West Bank in search of a better life, he says.
"Since 2006, we have been suffering from both problems. We have not obtained a job opportunity due to the difficult economic conditions in Gaza, because of the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip, Fatah–Hamas conflict, as well as discrimination in The Gaza Strip, is between Muslims and Christians by the Islamists," he said in an interview with The Christian Post.
Earlier this month, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip began firing missiles toward Israel after clashes between Jews and Arabs in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem. This led to an air response from Israel Defense Forces, which pummelled the Gaza Strip with airstrikes that have led to the displacement of thousands from their homes. A ceasefire was reportedly reached Friday.
The losers of this conflict are only the civilians who will be subjected to various types of abuse, especially in the Gaza Strip.
The Islamic Jihad Movement and Hamas both receive hundreds of millions of dollars in support from Qatar and Iran. The civilians in Gaza, including Christians, are persecuted in the Gaza Strip by the authorities of Hamas.
Why do Christians leave their lands?
Over the years, many Christians of Gaza have left their lands and migrated to other parts of the country and world.
“With the beginning of each year, we expected conditions to improve and to live in dignity. But to no avail. So we were surprised by new crises that are more severe than the previous ones, such as the increase in unemployment rates, the lack of work opportunities and the continuous blackout,” Hassan said.
As for the 46-year-old Christian resident of Gaza Abu George, who preferred not to reveal his full name, he dreams of leaving the Gaza Strip and heading to a European country to live away from the conditions of Gaza, which he described as "not suitable for living."
"Since 2006, we have been facing great difficulties,” George added. “Our conditions are no longer the same, and there are some harassment by the Hamas government, in addition to the difficulty of moving to the West Bank at Christmas. So we did not enjoy freedom and comfort in the Gaza Strip; Therefore, immigration is our highest aspiration.”
"Our stay in Gaza is a duty for us because we come from this country,” he added. “And despite that, we no longer tolerate more than that, and we tried to accept this reality, but to no avail. The situation in Gaza will not change and will worsen if the Palestinian reconciliation is not implemented. This is another reason makes me think of immigration to a European country, in search of freedom and a decent life.”
Abu George explains that, at first, he rejected the idea of immigration. He said many of his friends and Christian relatives left several years ago.
Although he wanted to stay in the Gaza Strip, when they told him about the difference between Gaza and life outside its borders, he reconsidered and became determined to immigrate.
A Greek Orthodox Church priest in Gaza, whose name is withheld to protect his identity, agrees that "the economic conditions in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian conflict between Fatah and Hamas and the harassment by the Hamas government are the most important reasons that prompted Christians in the Gaza Strip to think about immigration.”
“It was not suitable to live, so they wanted to search for a better life,” the priest told CP.
He warned that the continuous migration of Christians from the Gaza Strip and their orientation to live in European countries and the West Bank "is a dangerous indicator that affects the Christian presence in the strip.”
“By immigration, which means that there will be no new generations of Christians in Gaza,” he feared.
"Perhaps among the reasons that pushed Christians to leave the Gaza Strip is that holidays are limited to religious rituals in the church only and that public places and parks [have no celebrations], as was done in the past during the era of the Palestinian Authority before the Hamas-Fatah conflict. So the celebrations were spread all over the strip by that time and were lit Christmas trees and wandering the streets with big celebrations. But now the situation has changed.”
Despite the historic presence of Christians in Gaza, their numbers gradually decreased.
The church leader explains that he cannot do anything against the immigration of Christians from the Gaza Strip.
Noting that he tried in the church to convince many young people and families not to emigrate and stay in the Gaza Strip to preserve the Christian presence in the region, they were rarely successful in this endeavor.
The priest said in the end, this is a personal choice, which, as he put it, cannot be forced to change.
He points out that the migration of Christians can be overcome if "the Palestinian reconciliation is completed, the Palestinian Authority returns to the Gaza Strip, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements are expelled, job opportunities are created, the economic situation is changed for the better, the youth are stabilized in their homeland and the living conditions they are looking for abroad are provided."
Hanna Haddad, a Christian professor in theology in the West Bank, mainly in Ramallah who is a member of The Christian Islamic Organization for Jerusalem and the Holy Places, affirms the decline of the Christian population in the Holy Land.
Some estimates have suggested the Christian population of the Holy Land is around 2%.
“Only 1,000 Christians remain in the Gaza Strip out of 5,000 who used to live in [Gaza around 2006] and expected to decline more next few years,” he said. “Also, 50,000 Christians live in the West Bank, in addition to 12,000 Arab Christians in eastern Jerusalem. This, in turn, threatens the Christian presence in the Holy Land."
Haddad warns that it is the “duty of official and civil institutions to prevent the immigration of Christians and consolidate their survival.”
“[They need] to aspire to reverse immigration and to face the stifling economic conditions with serious economic support, which increases confidence among those who see immigration as a safe path,” he added.
Haddad criticizes the churches in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in general for "focusing their attention on religious rituals and performing prayers and rituals," calling them to shoulder their responsibilities in these difficult circumstances by paying more attention to the essence of Christians' life problems and trying to address the reasons that lead them to emigrate.
Attempts to convert Christians by Islamists
Other reasons causing the Christian minority to leave the strip are the pressures they feel from some members of the authority in Gaza calling for the conversion of Christians to Islam.
A Christian activist, who spoke with CP on the condition of anonymity, says that some Christian family members were forced to convert to Islam a few years ago.
He said that other Christians had converted to Islam during the past years after pressures from Muslim society.
Another activist who preferred to stay anonymous said, “there is a big rift in the relations between Muslims and Christians, especially the Hamas movement, some of whose members are pressuring Christians to convert to Islam.”
“Some groups want to spread sedition between Christians and Muslims,” the activist added.
Christians have faced other forms of persecution. In 2009, Islamic extremists blew up a church in Gaza. Additionally, some Christians in Gaza have been killed during the past years.
One of the Christians was allegedly killed because of debts, while the other was killed in light of more mysterious circumstances that had not yet been revealed.
It is said that fundamentalist Islamists killed him because he tried to preach Muslims to Christianity.
In 2012, it was reported that some Christian families in Gaza said their children were subject to "brainwashing" attempts by Muslim activists. One mother said that her son’s colleagues at university pursued her son and said he should become a Muslim, Reuters reports.
Rami Dabbas is a civil engineer by profession who writes for several media outlets. He is a pro-Israel advocate and human rights activist fighting against sharia law, radical Islamic terrorism and Arab nationalism. He connects with many NGOs, think tanks and counter-Jihad organizations to promote peace with Israel. He is a former Muslim who left Islam in 2012 and later became a Christian.